This is a guest post by student Sydney who went to an unusual high school that emphasized service learning.

For my middle and high school years, I attended a school founded on the principles of global engagement, purposeful living, and ethical responsibility. Service was central to my education, where students often volunteered abroad, participated in non-profit grant writing competitions, and were required to take a class called “Service Learning” for at least two years in high school. While attending my school, I had the immense privilege of going on a cultural exchange to China, writing and winning a grant to start a non-profit organization, and volunteering with dozens of local organizations during the school day.

Although I loved the volunteering opportunities my school gave me, I was skeptical of the impact my volunteering had on the communities I visited, briefly gave my unskilled time to, and left never to return. For example, in China, I was designated to help in the construction of a water drainage system, although my classmates and I had no experience in this area. I felt that my unskilled work would simply be redone after our tourism was over, which I am almost sure occurred. Furthermore, although I had the chance to volunteer with many local organizations with my school, I felt that I did not take the time to understand and learn from the communities I was serving.

However, one of my school’s requirements, a class called “Service Learning”, changed how I go about volunteering. In “Service Learning,” we first explored the dilemmas of ethical service, and from there were encouraged to join one of the dozen student-led service groups on campus. Each of these groups had a set 1.5 hour period per week in the school’s schedule to complete their service work. In the end, I chose to join an environmental group called New Ocean Blue, which presented to elementary school-aged children about plastic pollution in the ocean, its impact on marine life, and ways to reduce personal single-use plastic consumption. Although I apprehensively joined the group, I soon found myself enamored with the joy and adrenaline I felt whenever I presented.

One of the most fun things about New Ocean Blue was that I was constantly challenged and stimulated into thinking of new ways to present the information, be that through making fun videos, hands-on activities, or bringing a sense of relatability to the issue of plastic pollution. I took a deep dive into the research and current information on the plastic pollution problem, which made me want to do more. The more time I devoted to educating myself, the more passionate I became about the topic and the better educator I became. Over the course of three years, I became a significantly better public speaker, a more creative thinker, and I was more in tune with the different backgrounds and struggles children from different communities around me faced. Furthermore, other members of New Ocean Blue became some of my closest friends to date.

As I was learning and growing as an educator, I was able to see the impact New Ocean Blue had on my local community. Incoming freshmen in my high school would tell me that they remembered when New Ocean Blue came to present to their classroom as elementary-schoolers. Eventually, New Ocean Blue saw the fruits of its labor, winning a national award through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for its conservation education initiative.

Now that I’m in college, I continue to seek out opportunities that spark the same kind of passion and interest that New Ocean Blue gave me for environmental education. At Stanford, where I’m studying earth and environmental science, I’m involved in their chapter of Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity, and Sustainability, where we present to a local continuation high school about environmental science and ecology. I have also been involved in environmental education projects through Students for a Sustainable Stanford and explored environmental education ethics in my research papers and personal endeavors. As a career goal, I hope to change the way environmental education is typically taught to include environmental pedagogy that is relevant for urban and underserved youth.

New Ocean Blue gave me an experience and changed my life in a way that far exceeded what I ever thought I would be able to gain through any service experience, and I’ve gone with this outlook to other nonprofits that I’ve volunteered with. Dedicate yourself to a cause and take the time to truly learn and grow from the community you are serving—it can change your life!

Sydney Schmitter is an undergraduate at Stanford University studying Earth Systems and Urban Studies/Geology. She became passionate about volunteering through her school’s emphasis on service and hopes to share how her experience changed her life for the better.